Challenge a garden myth challenger, as experience advises – Twin Cities


I was invited to an online gardening presentation last week hosted by New Society Publishers and featuring one of its authors, famed Ontario botanist and gardener Robert Pavlis.

In his talk, “Plant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better Plants,” Pavlis kindly skewered not ALL of the misconceptions that gardening writers routinely pass on to our readers as if it were fact, but a handful of the most popular. With relish.

Bonnie Blodgett

I’ll offer a sample here, fleshing out or completely correcting some of my own gaffes.

But first, I must remind you that I never had an advanced degree in botany (my major was journalism) nor claimed to have. In other words, I never promised you a rose garden.

Where have I?

Moreover, if I have misled you from time to time, it’s not for lack of being faithful to the best fact-based, scientifically proven gardening advice I’ve ever given to anyone:

The best way to learn to do something is to do it.

Not that I could change my habits if I tried. I’m too old, and when I was young, I was too young.

Loyal readers won’t be surprised to learn that YouTube videos aren’t my go-to when something needs fixing around the house, any more than online experts are when it comes to fixing gardening problems.

The other night, for example, when the mercury was at an all-time high, I was in one of the units I rent on Airbnb trying to figure out how to keep cool air from seeping in under two patio doors. in an adjacent uncooled space. what I call the tropical jungle. (The rental unit has a window air conditioner. Most of my house is cooled with fans.)

Since conventional door sweeps are useless in this situation due to extremely uneven floors, I eventually dug around in the garage and found a roll of fiberglass insulation.

I knew that only something resembling a sponge would compress to fit under the door where the ground rises, while retaining its shape where the ground sinks.

The project lasted about 20 minutes. Guests won’t be the wiser, as the thin strips I chiseled to fit the bottom of each door, then secured with packing tape, were then covered with painter’s tape that matches to the color of the door.

A practical friend had tried to solve this problem before I took over. After browsing the alleys of Ménards, he came to my house with a length of rigid foam tubing, the kind used to insulate plumbing pipes. I told him to return the tubes and not to buy anything else unless it was a pair of sponges shaped (more or less) like baseball bats.

Since there was no such article at Ménards or elsewhere, I urged him to serve me as my surgical nurse. He handed me the scissors and/or tape while holding the door in place.

Can I monetize this? No. There is no consumer product solution for any of the billion-in-a-million problems.

Nor is there a quick fix (bottled or otherwise) for nine-tenths of the problems I have in my garden, despite the best efforts of the experts and despite our economy’s relentless quest to monetize everything. . Some things cannot be scaled.

I mean, how do you scale a flexible gap remover under the door?

How many people live in frame houses dating back to 1880?

Why is “This Old House” also called “This Old Million-Dollar House?” Because the solution that’s scaled and shown on TV is to run the house down to the studs or further, with today’s homeowner confident that a house that isn’t “at ‘straight and square’ is an impending doom. It’s not because of the tornadoes but what the neighbors will think. Ah, and the resale? Look for!

OK, back to Robert Pavlis.

I wrote here a few years ago that oak trees have taproots. This, according to Pavlis, is an outright lie.

It’s actually more like a white lie.

Oak trees grow in stages, Pavlis explained, and therefore have two sets of roots; the older the tree, the more dependent it becomes on the increasingly dominant second root system, consisting of shallow roots that extend far outside the tree canopy, sometimes all the way down the block!

But the taproot exists, its purpose is to keep the tree straight when it is young and helpless.

Pavlis was also enlightening about the weather and climate. Garden writers (like me) who have encouraged readers to “push” USDA zones, on the theory that climate change is pushing our plants, are kidding us (and you).

Despite my own successful zone pushing experiences, it takes much more than a few degrees to change a plant’s range of hardiness. Global warming implies an increase in heat of 3 degrees (at which point we all die), not the 10, 20, or 30 degrees that differentiate USDA zones.

Again (as with his debunking of the myth that oak trees have a taproot), I have to quibble with the expert. More than temperature is involved in what we call climate change.

I’m planting more zone 5 (i.e. less hardy) perennials than before, not only because I’m betting against a return of minus 40 cold snaps, but because these plants often tolerate heat better. . Maybe they have root systems that go deep for water. Some even have taproots!

It’s the shallow-rooted plants, whether they’re zone 4 or 5, that don’t like the extreme inconsistency of our new weather and the way it allows for unprecedented pestilence.

Plants are more likely to die from a long-term drought or an onslaught of baseball-sized hail or monsoon-type rains that can’t drain and get sick from it , or, like our ash trees, be infested with an insect which used to be unable to survive our cold winters and can now, only ordinary scorching heat.

My goal is to plant anything that can cope with all of this, regardless of its USDA zone. Indeed, some of the hardiest plants in the summer months are tropical and semi-tropical plants that I reward for their resilience by bringing them indoors for the winter.

One of Pavlis’ facts that I can’t guess, because I’ve never grown sunflowers, is that sunflowers kiss each other. The truth is that they rotate their huge flower heads twice a day, first towards the rising sun and then towards the setting sun, to extend their solar storage window of opportunity. Sometimes that frantic swiveling results in what feels like a kiss. This is not the case.

What interested me most in Pavlis’s botany lesson was botany. Yes, I mean with a capital B. Things I know intuitively about the behavior of the plants he named.

What we think of as flowers are usually something else, like bracts (euphorbias) or sepals (clematis).

As for evergreens, Pavlis urged us to leave them alone, all but yews, which can be pruned for shape (see yew topiaries) quite aggressively.

All other conifers should be handled with care…and moderation, lest they remove the living cells from which the fresh foliage grows.

As a general rule, it is only safe to remove new growth, the tapers of a pine tree or the light green tips of an arborvitae, for example, and to do so just as new growth appears. This way you will know what is new and what is not.

I told you about my misadventure with three evenly spaced blue spherical spruces along a retaining wall in my front garden.

The happy ending, I didn’t tell you about it.

Having failed to curb their enthusiasm when I had the chance (by frequently trimming their candles when they were young), I ended up having no choice but to chop down all the dead wood that perpetuates the lie that these unsightly plants are shrubs.

I turned all three into trees.

The taming of my blue globe spruce began about three years ago. Obviously it wasn’t the “well-behaved dwarfs that make this gem the perfect structure plant” that I had brought home assuming they wouldn’t cost so much if they weren’t the good cops my garden was crying out for.

False-oh! They were thugs.

By cutting the pointed tops that stuck out like witches’ hats from the “tidy orbs”, I gave them a horizontal habit. Removing all the dead lower branches and twigs that were the tidy globes was the next and hopefully the last step.

Then, in the dense shade of the evergreen canopy where there were dead branches, I planted “Alaska” nasturtiums. They don’t shy away from poor soil and in fact prefer it, nor are they greedy for sun or water.

The nasturtiums are now ready to overflow the stone retaining wall (under their own weight) and lick the sun. In the middle of summer, they will flower their heads.

“Alaska” has variegated leaves. This too makes it the perfect choice for this site. Variegating equates to slow growth, caused by less chlorophyll, and it also equates to shade tolerance, for the same reason.

Which brings me to the next topic from Pavlis: the many ways plants fight off variegation and other “improvements” made by humans, in order to get back to their “origin”.

Pavlis showed how reversion causes roses and grafted fruit trees to send up shoots of its wilder, hardier precursor (and what to do about it: prune offshoots immediately), and why variegated hostas and heucheras and the like artificial cultivars are also returning.

Bottom Line: If your fancy perennials are turning dull green, it’s because it makes life easier for them. Green is the color of chlorophyll. And the more chlorophyll there is, the more energy the plant can photosynthesize.

A botanist (capital B) would need a semester to explain the details of this amazing process to his students. I am not going.

Suffice it to say, it’s your job to make those sloths suffer a little, in return for which your variegated lovelies will receive lavish praise when the garden tourists come calling. This also applies to plants with chartreuse coloration and/or streaks, spatters, spots and the like.

So grab your hedge shears and remove that annoying green leaf before its kind completely takes over. Do you remember what I said about scaling? It’s not just a human thing. Mother Nature does too! But isn’t it more fun to go against the crowd and try something new?


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